Umbrella

It is difficult to imagine that anything interesting or controversial ever happens in the car park of our local Lidl store.  The concrete space sits off the busy Soroba Road and is opposite a Londis filling station and the Lorn Medical Centre, with the Black Lynn burn running along its back; an ordinary rural supermarket car park.  Surely nothing remarkable occurs in these types of places –  unless you are the guy who recently completed his six-year quest to park in all 211 spaces in the car park of the Bromley branch of Sainsbury’s whilst compiling a spreadsheet ranking each of them.  Until I read that particular story when it came to national attention in April, I often worried that I was spending too much time worrying about the pointless minutiae of life.  Things like the length of time it would take for my socks to dry on a clothes airer, the pollen count, or the procedure for changing lightbulbs in a Victorian-era height light fitting.  I thought about how best to organise my tie rack, how I could use the can of chickpeas I had panic bought at the beginning of the first lockdown, and the hygiene of using a pedal bin versus a swing bin.  But it turns out that I’m not alone, and in a way I felt vindicated.

I don’t know if there is anyone in Oban who is keeping a spreadsheet of all of the spaces in the Lidl car park, but if there isn’t then it seems reasonable to assume that there is nothing of consequence taking place there.  That is until my own clandestine meeting there last week.  I received a text message from the Plant Doctor asking me if I would be available to meet him and the owner of the Arctic Fox car in the Lidl car park at seven o’clock on Tuesday evening since Arctic Fox was leaving for a new job in Edinburgh at the end of the week and she was wanting to present me with a leaving gift.  Traditionally it is the person who is leaving that receives gifts, not those who are left behind, but it seemed as though all norms had been thrown out the window by this point in 2021.  I spent the day wondering what Arctic Fox was going to hand over in Lidl car park.  A brightly coloured pair of socks, perhaps, since we had spoken about the importance of socks to me on occasion.  Maybe a selection of beers after witnessing how protective I was of my cans when I fell in the mud on Kerrera without spilling a drop, or a bag filled with tennis balls that the Plant Doctor and I could entertain ourselves with in her absence.

The car park was practically empty at 7pm, making it even less remarkable than usual, though at one point, as I was standing talking to Arctic Fox and the Plant Doctor, a shoe did come flying out of the passenger side window of an oncoming car, soon followed by a girl of primary school age who ran out to chase after it.  Arctic Fox was carrying an Amazon Prime box which was open at the top.  Inside I could see not socks or beers or even tennis balls, but six houseplants of various types.  She handed the box to me, a leaving gift that was effectively a box of mass murder.  It’s not as though Arctic Fox didn’t know about my dire history of failing to keep houseplants alive for any significant time:  on the flap of the box she had inscribed the words “it is okay if they all die.”

She and the Plant Doctor tried to employ scientific reason to make me feel better about the grave responsibility I had inherited.  They speculated that the plants might have a chance of survival since they will have safety in numbers, and that statistically at least one out of the six should be able to live, but I didn’t believe it.  It’s not like I was purposefully killing all of my houseplants or that I took any kind of enjoyment from their demise, it’s just something that happens when they come into my guardianship.  Over my life as a single occupant, I have learned that I am no better at knowing how to properly care for houseplants than I am at knowing what to do with a can of chickpeas.

I lined the six plants across the edge of my mantelpiece, alongside a couple of cactus plants that have been gathering dust for a while and the Crassula ovata succulent I had bought from Lidl last September just to bring my shopping to £25 so that I could use a £5 off coupon and which was grimly clinging on to life.  I was quite impressed with how the collection looked.  My favourite was the plant that Arctic Fox had been growing inside a bottle.  It was pretty cool, though most things that come in bottles tend to appeal to me.  Seemingly the plants would only need to be watered once a week, and while that news should have been welcomed by my lackadaisical approach to horticulture, in my mind it somehow made things more difficult.  You can get into a routine when you’re doing something every day, such as feeding a child or a cat.  Having to remember to water your plants one day every week seemed awkward, the sort of thing that would be best done by keeping a spreadsheet.  And who wants to be that kind of guy?

The health of my new houseplants has been on my mind quite a bit in the days since I was gifted them, though occasionally I have been distracted.  Every night on the Esplanade, at exactly the same point, I passed a pair of pigeons who were sitting on the sea wall, always doing nothing but just staring at one another.  It was impossible to say for certain that they were the same two birds, but they looked the same anyway.  The pigeons were absolutely lovestruck, and I found myself wishing that there was someone who would look at me the way these pigeons were gazing at each other.  I’ve heard of a doe-eyed look, but I had never seen this kind of doo-eyed look before.

Nearby, a few metres away from the romancing pigeons, an elderly couple were sitting on one of the benches which face out onto the bay.  Their shopping bags were spread out on the ground by their feet, Marks & Spencer, I think, and the woman’s walking stick was balanced against the arm of the bench.  She was leaning back into the chest of her partner, as though they were at home on their couch watching a film, and her right arm was stretched out in front of them holding a mobile phone.  Presumably she was taking a selfie of the two of them.  It was quite nice that they still felt that way about each other at their age, but it made me feel sad too.  The Esplanade is full of couples strolling side-by-side these days, and sometimes it gets tiring to see.  I think I preferred it when the only people who would be out were the joggers; even the guy who was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in winter.  Apart from anything else, I think what bothered me most was the knowledge that the woman’s photograph won’t even have captured the beautiful sea view with the sunlight exploding off the water in front of them.  Instead it will just be the two of them cuddled together with the Corran Halls car park in the distance behind.  Though I guess, like the pigeons, they didn’t really care about what else was around them.

It wasn’t until I got my hair cut on Saturday morning that I was able to shed some of my cynicism, along with more hairs than I had ever had on my head.  A sign on the door of the barbershop says that customers have to phone a number to make an appointment in line with government guidelines, but it turns out that the number is for a phone that the barber only uses when he is away on holiday and it is never answered and you simply go inside and write your name and the time in a large book.  Business had seemingly been slowing down now that most people have had their first cut since restrictions eased, while some people are still cropping their own hair at home, and the barber reckoned that he probably wouldn’t really get busy again until weddings were allowed with more substantial numbers and women would insist that their partners get a proper haircut for the event.  It never ceases to amaze me how much wisdom there is to be heard in the barber’s chair.  I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on keeping houseplants, but I was meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Poppies and I didn’t think that I had the time to get into it.

With my new haircut and wearing my favourite pair of beige chinos, I felt a lot like a garden chair that is retrieved from the shed and dusted down in spring after spending the winter in storage when I went out for drinks with my brother and the Plant Doctor.  143 days had come and gone since I last had a pint of lager poured from a pub tap, and nothing tasted better.  There wasn’t a table to be had outside Markies or the Oban Inn, so we settled for a seat at Bar Rio, which looked quite nice with its new wooden plant boxes enclosing the outdoor drinking area from the rest of the pavement.  It was a good spot for people-watching.  The weather wasn’t especially inviting for a beer garden with overcast skies, though it was dry and reasonably mild and we had spent the best part of five months indoors.  We deserved a drink.

Barely an hour had passed when a drop of rain fell from the sky and landed on the knee of my chinos.  Such is the way of these things it was swiftly followed by a crescendo of the stuff.  There was nothing we could do about it, not when we had bought another round of drinks, though the guy at the table next to us went inside the restaurant and ordered two cups of tea since they could be consumed indoors.  From our vantage point we could see everyone across the street in the Oban Inn desperately trying to squeeze under the canopy.  The Plant Doctor quipped that we should be drinking cocktails so that we could get those little cocktail umbrellas, and when it came time for me to order our next round of beers I couldn’t help but steal his joke when the barmaid arrived at our table.  With her mask it was difficult to tell whether she smiled or if I received the same reaction I usually get when I try to make a woman laugh, but her eyes suggested that she enjoyed the line.  A few moments later, the barmaid returned to our table with a small plastic box of the wee cocktail umbrellas and offered us our choice, which made us very happy.

The rain didn’t last terribly long, though the shower was heavy enough to leave us soaked and to water my Tennent’s Lager down from a 4% to a 3.9% ABV.  Ordinarily such an experience might have left us feeling miserable, but after a year of almost nothing but misery, it was hard to be upset over a little rain.  We dried out pretty quickly, and once we started drinking White Russians along with our beers, the whole world seemed to be singing and all the colours had come out.  I couldn’t believe that I had lived for 37 years without trying one of those before.  Seemingly when I arrived home after the ten o’clock curfew I planted the pink cocktail umbrella in the soil of one of my houseplants.  It’s funny trying to decipher the crazy way that the heavily intoxicated mind works.  The little umbrella wasn’t likely to make it any easier for me to remember to water the plants, and it wouldn’t protect them from the shower that probably isn’t going to come any better than it kept the rain out of my lager.  But still, it was nice to look at.

The week after I dumped my dead houseplants

In the kitchen, on the windowsill where I once housed a plant which came with the direction not to be placed in direct sunlight, my shirt had been discarded.  It was an unusual scene which confused me greatly. 

Recently it would seem that my weeks have become a lot like the days in the Cure song “Friday I’m in Love”, only the last day of my week barely brings so much as a like and my version would be more accurately titled, “Friday I’m in Aulay’s.”

It was on bin collection day of last week – the collection of bins in Oban, or at least in my block of flats, seems to straddle the desperate dash to fill them with as much rubbish as possible before wheeling them onto the street on Tuesday night and the actual picking up of the bins by the council on Wednesday morning (both grey days in the Cure song) – when I finally decided that it would be best to get rid of the two dead, or two most dead, houseplants from my flat.  For some time I had been despairing at their dreary drooping leaves and the way that the soil had become so dusty that they had begun to resemble the reference books section of the library.  A few petals which had once been pink were strewn across the top of the mantel place, lying lifeless next to the mantel clock as though depicting some morbid metaphor for the passage of time; a horticulture horror show.

It is not that I had no affection for my flowers or that I didn’t want to care for them, more that of late I have been in a place where my own emotions have been wilting and looking after myself has been enough of a task without trying to remember to water the roses.  So I walked the short distance around my flat a week past Tuesday lunchtime with a 22L white bin liner in hand and surveyed the wasteland of potted plants.  I tried to imagine myself in the role of some kind of plant doctor as I sought to determine whether the ailments being suffered by these things in their terracotta death beds could be treated by even a little more nourishment than I was providing, but that was proving too difficult and I took the even more implausible approach of considering how a female visitor to my flat might feel if she returned to my place on a night and found herself surrounded by the saddest gathering of houseplants she had ever seen.  It was with this thought in mind that I tossed the two most damaged plants into the white bin bag, gathered along with the burned out tealight candles I had used for incense, which had been discarded in the small wicker basket by the fireplace.  As the bag was filled it started to resemble some kind of ancient Pagan ritual for lost love.

Approximately one week had passed when I broke bread with a woodland traveller.  On this occasion the bread was naan and I was forced into improvisation when the question of plain or garlic was asked.  Ordering food for myself is often challenging enough, but trying to deduce what kind of Indian accompaniment a person you have never eaten with would prefer was an additional pressure.  The Wetherspoons cashier stared at me blankly as I pondered her naan question for nigh upon eight seconds.  I felt a reluctance to make eye contact with her, lest she become aware that this was the most difficult choice I had been faced with all week.  Finally I decided that any woman would probably prefer her naan bread like she likes her men – plain and with as little pungent odour as possible – and I allowed myself to breathe again.

At the table a question of etiquette was raised when the two women at the table adjacent to ours stood up and asked that we watch their table for “two seconds.”  When they returned several minutes later, grateful to find that their spot had been reserved, I realised that I had forgotten all about their request for us to be vigilant neighbours and if any other diner had taken their place I wouldn’t have been aware enough to object.  In that situation my defence would have been that I had fulfilled the verbal obligation of watching their table for two seconds and anything that happened after that time had lapsed was out with my jurisdiction.  This opened the debate over how long it is reasonable to sit and watch a table for another person – there is a scenario where one could plausibly be there all day defending a seating arrangement for a stranger – and how assertive it is necessary to be when you are confronted by someone who wants to take the table you are watching.  My natural need to please others and avoid confrontation would probably only lead to me offering my own table instead.

The more the week continued to progress – in the same way every week does, day by day – the more I was becoming aware of a curious sensation I was feeling every morning as I was walking to work.  It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling in recent weeks and months, but one which had become much more noticeable and was ultimately impossible to ignore on this week.

As I settled on a Spotify playlist and walked past The Factory Shop I felt my heartbeat quicken, to the extent that it was racing as quickly as it does in the moments before I am about to say something stupid to a girl.  It was as though a butterfly had become trapped in a net and it was desperately flapping its wings in an attempt to escape, and I could hardly catch a breath.  There was a nauseous feeling in the bottom of my stomach and my hands and arms had become the opposite of a critically acclaimed Pink Floyd song – that is to say that they were uncomfortably numb.

My mouth soon turned remarkably dry, reminiscent of the way it does when you are dehydrated from alcohol, but I remembered that I had not been drinking the night before and I knew that I wasn’t hung over.  This was in contrast to my legs, which both felt drunk and like they were trying to walk under water.  My mind was feeling overwhelmed and my sinuses were like fireworks sizzling and ready to explode.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I have been living in the same place for thirty-four years I’m not sure that I would have been able to find my way to the office.

I used Bing to find Google, where I typed each of my symptoms into the search box.  It returned some nonsensical answers and so I removed the similes

These symptoms repeated themselves every morning and would usually last for hours at a time.  By the end of the week I was even considering going to the doctor to find out if this was something more than a deep fear of branded names at low prices, but I decided against making an appointment when I recalled the awkward experience I had last time at the doctor when I didn’t know which chair it was most appropriate to sit in.  Instead I used Bing to find Google, where I typed each of my symptoms into the search box.  It returned some nonsensical answers and so I removed the similes and the new results largely suggested that I could have been experiencing an anxiety attack.  I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant or if I was feeling better or worse for reading it.

In an attempt to improve my mood I decided to listen to some of Paul McCartney’s material away from The Beatles, because a lot like Red Bull Paul McCartney gives you Wings, and when I went out on Friday night I had put any thoughts of anxiety out of my head.  In Aulay’s I found myself briefly standing next to the girl with the unmatched socks (The few weeks I realised I am in a funk) and she shook my hand and introduced herself, indicating that her memory of me was not as clear as my recollection of her.  She commented with fondness on the navy blue tie I was wearing and my natural instinct would normally be to reveal my identically matching socks but I was reluctant to be in a position where I would be forced to acknowledge her unmatched socks again, so I instead complimented the shade of pink on her fingernails.  She disagreed with my opinion that her nails were nice and upon reflection they probably weren’t particularly remarkable and the comment must have sounded like a terrible line.

While most of the town enjoyed the Oban Live festival over the weekend, on Saturday I savoured the scene at the bar in the Royal Hotel.  My attention was drawn to the barmaid behind the frosted Heineken pump.  Her hair was the colour of a leaf caught between the seasons of summer and autumn.  I ordered a pint of beer and enquired how her night was going.  She said that it was long and it took me all of my effort to not be myself and take this answer literally by pointing out that every day is made up of 24 hours, and instead I asked why her night was so long.  The barmaid informed me that she had been working since 3pm, would probably not finish until 2am and was scheduled to be working again at eleven the following morning.  By the time she had finished pouring a pint of Heineken I had remarked that for someone who was working such terribly long hours the barmaid was looking remarkably cheerful.  She wasn’t, but my faux observation drew a smile.  Though the fact that I don’t recall seeing the barmaid again for the rest of the night lends to be believe that the smile was probably masking her cringe.

On Sunday morning, some time around 10.30, I awoke in my bed wearing nothing more than a sock on my left foot.  I staggered haphazardly through my flat to encounter my boots and the missing second sock in the hallway.  My jeans were in a heap on the chair in the living room and on the bathroom sink my watch was found.  In the kitchen, on the windowsill where I once housed a plant which came with the direction not to be placed in direct sunlight, my shirt had been discarded.  It was an unusual scene which confused me greatly.  With this discovery, and the week I had just lived through, I decided that I need to get myself some houseplants.